This is my first “Ultimate Travel Guide” I’ve written, and for good reason. I don’t take that claim lightly. I haven’t felt confident enough to name something an “Ultimate Travel Guide” until this very moment – sitting in my hotel room in Krakow.
Here’s a little background on Krakow to get your feet wet.
Krakow actually used to be Poland’s capital until about 1596 when Warsaw took the title. Still, Krakow is one of the oldest and thought to be one of the most beautiful cities in Poland – and I don’t dare disagree.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Poland has their own currency called the Zloty (PLN). As I’m typing this, one USD is equivalent to 3.84 PLN which means a dollar goes relatively far here. It’s easy to have a 5 star vacation at a 3 star price in Poland if you’re coming from the US or the EU.
Most places will take Euro as well. For the most part, we just paid in Zloty using our Travel Credit Cards with no foreign transaction fees. Speaking of, yes, most places take credit cards, but a few were cash only. I’d suggest getting a few hundred Zloty to carry around before you leave.
Interested in learning more about these Travel Credit Cards? I’ve got just ebook for you!
As you may have guessed, the most common language here is Polish! I’d say the majority of people at least knew some English (especially in the touristy areas), but I wouldn’t make the assumption that everyone will know what you’re saying. And that’s not a bad thing. You’re in THEIR country, remember? Here are some phrases that really helped me out:
“Thank you” – Dziękuję Ci (Jane-ku ya)
“Good morning/good day/general greeting” – dzień dobry (Jane dobre)
“Do you speak English?” – czy mówisz po angielsku (che movich po angeelsko)
“yes” – tak (exactly how it’s spelled)
“no” – nie (ni-eh)
This is about all I know how to say in Polish. If the conversation got any deeper, I just pulled out the Google Translate app to help me out.
I was actually looking for nausea medicine at one point and I DEFINITELY don’t know how to ask for that, so I typed in my question, and the app’s voice said it out loud to the person behind the counter. I got a few strange looks, but for the most part, people were very helpful and would reply with “nie” or “tak.”
WHERE TO STAY
This is where I really excelled for this trip. I picked such a good hotel and I feel super confident in recommending this to whomever is reading this Krakow travel guide. We’re staying at the Hotel Francuski (I use present tense because I’m literally in the hotel right now typing this).
First of all, you walk in and see a grand staircase lined with red carpet and gold-trimmed handles. The lobby was also decorated for Christmas, so it had a very cozy feel to it the second we arrived.
We were then greeted by the nicest staff who luckily spoke English enough to help us out when needed and let us know when and where breakfast would be served.
They handed us the key – an actual key with what feels like a 5lb metal plate as a keychain so it doesn’t get lost. I’m a sucker for hotels that give you an actual key. While it may be less efficient than a card, it just seems a lot more homey and old school that way.
We made our way to our room and I seriously couldn’t believe it. We have French doors at the back that open up to a balcony that looks over the streets of Krakow. I immediately went outside and heard the clickity clack of the carriage horses coming down our street. What a welcome!
The most important part: Breakfast
As if this hotel needed anything else to capture my attention, the breakfast was amazing.
The hot portion changed daily with options such as scrambled eggs, Polish sausage, mushrooms, crepes, baked beans, and hot dog weenies. They also had fresh bread, various spreads, cold cuts, and pastries offered every day, complete with an espresso machine.
Wait until I tell you the price on this. For 4 nights, it was $372 (333 Euros). This is what i mean when I say you can get a 5 star vacation for a 3 star price!
Are you convinced yet?
There’s no way this hotel wouldn’t make it onto my Krakow travel guide since we loved it so much.
Wanna know more about it? I have a blog post dedicated specifically to breaking down why Hotel Francuski is the best hotel in Krakow.
If you read through this entire section and still aren’t convinced, there are plenty of other hotel or Airbnb options.
One piece of advice here if you do decide to book a different hotel, is to stay in Old Town. You’ll be walking distance from just about everything you’ll want to see and Old Town is full of restaurants, bars, boutique shops, markets, and anything else you could possibly need.
If you end up not staying in Old Town, I’ll bet you’ll spend a lot of time walking to and from Old Town to see things like those listed further down in this guide.
WHAT TO SEE
There’s a ton to see and do in this city, but here is my list of things you must see before leaving Krakow. To get through the entire list (and everything in this Krakow travel guide), I’d recommend at least 4 nights in the city.
This is at the top of the list for a reason. You have to go. With an exception mayyybe if you’re only in Krakow for 1 day, but anything more, go to Auschwitz. You’re doing yourself, humanity, and history a disservice if you don’t.
I couldn’t publish a travel guide to Krakow without mentioning some of history’s darkest moments.
We all know what happened here (at least I hope we do. If not, leave my blog and Google it immediately.), but its different being here.
The first part of the tour
The tour starts in Auschwitz I and takes you through the prisoners’ barracks. These are filled with exhibits including living conditions and piles of belongings taken from the prisoners upon their arrival – everything from glasses to shoes to pottery to clothes. They even used to shave women’s hair to weave into yarn and they have piles and piles of hair that were found when the camps were liberated.
One of the women in our tour group had told the guide that her step dad was actually at Auschwitz as a prisoner. Because of this, the guide let us into the room with the book of names that is usually reserved for the Hebrew tour only. The book of names listed every prisoner in Auschwitz – or at least the ones they documented. There were about 500 “Arnstein”s listed (my last name).
Toward the end of Auschwitz I, they take you through the actual gas chamber. You’re told to be silent and for good reason – millions of people were mass murdered where you’re stepping. It was bone-chilling.
The hardest part
I have to say, the part that got to me the most was the fact that no one knew what was going to happen to them.
I read a book called The Tattooist of Auschwitz before I went which is based on a true love story (of all things) that happened in the camp. When the main character, Lale, arrives at Auschwitz, they make him leave his bags outside the cattle carts. He thinks to himself, “how will they know which bag is mine to give it back to me?” He had no idea what he was about to endure.
Similarly, in the museum, they mentioned that when people would arrive, the mothers, children, and elderly would automatically be sent to the gas chambers. However, there was never any panic in any of the photos taken because they had no idea. They thought they were going for a shower and when they were all inside a large room (complete with shower heads on the ceiling), the poison was dropped on them.
The second part of the tour
The tour continues in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) which is primarily outside and much larger. You walk the grounds, see the remains of the two gas chambers (the Germans destroyed them in an attempt to hide evidence of what was happening), and walk through the women’s barracks.
The last thing our guide left us with was this:
“Thank you for coming here today. There are only about 200 living survivors left with us. This happened so long ago, that they won’t be around for much longer. It’s up to our generation to come here and learn about what happened, or else the suffering of all these people will have been meaningless.”
And, for everyone that has asked, that is exactly why I chose to have one “dark” day on my trip and why I spent so much time writing about it here.
2. Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Castle both sit upon a massive hill. You can’t miss it if you go anywhere near the Southwest corner of Old Town.
I recommend getting here right when they open (9am when I went) or even earlier if you want pictures outside because it starts to get crowded FAST.
Your best bet is probably to visit Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Castle in the same day. This is what we did.
It’s actually free to enter the Cathedral, but I’d recommend buying the $3 ticket that lets you see Sigismund Bell, the Royal Tombs, and the Wawel Museum. It’ll take you 1.5 – 2 hours to get through all of this, but it’s a self-paced tour (they give you a map), so you can go through as quickly as you like, or take your time.
3. Wawel Castle
After (or before) the Cathedral, check out the inside of the Castle! Every tour segment is sold a la carte, but we opted to see the Lost Wawel, the State Rooms, the Private Apartments, and the Artillery. The only part of this that was actually guided was the Private Apartments and the rest was self-paced. Altogether, it took about 4 hours, though, so make sure you bring water and maybe a snack!
4. St. Mary’s Basilica
If you don’t know what this building looks like, you’ll probably walk right by it and not realize what it is. It’s right on the Old Town Square. You can get tours of the basilica as well as the two towers if you’d like. Or you can just walk around and take everything in yourself.
Legend has it that the two towers were originally supposed to be equal heights. They were built by two brothers. When the younger brother noticed that his tower wasn’t as tall as his brother’s, he murdered him and construction stopped. After that, the younger brother felt so much remorse that he killed himself in the tower as well with the same knife he used to kill his brother.
On a lighter note, a trumpeter plays a nice tune every hour from the towers.
5. The Jewish Quarter (Ghetto)
To the Southeast of Old Town is the Jewish Quarter (aka Kazimierz) which I recommend venturing over to for an afternoon in Krakow. Around 1495, Jews began to be expelled from Krakow and went to Kazimierz. The town flourished until the rise of Hitler and the Nazi occupation of Krakow. At this time, all the Jews in the area were sent across the river to a ghetto in Podgorze.
There’s a lot to see here, but it’s walkable. I’d suggest an afternoon of wandering the streets and taking a look at the architecture – especially the synagogues. There are also a bunch of restaurants on the river, including a few river boats you can eat on. I did this and admittedly, didn’t love the food (it seemed to cater to tourists), but it had some nice atmosphere.
If you’re in Old Town, Sukiennice (or, cloth hall) is hard to miss! It’s right in the center of Old Town Square and is filled with vendors selling everything from jewelry to clothing to art and everything in between. It probably won’t take too much time to walk through here, but I preferred to buy gifts and souvenirs here rather than the touristy gift shops on the square.
While we were there, there was even an outdoor Christmas market right outside Sukiennice. We ended up buying quite a few gifts here as well as things for ourselves to take home.
Krakow travel guide not enough?Need an itinerary?
If you need a specific itinerary whether your in Krakow for 3, 4, or 5 days, I’ve got the perfect next post for you to read! What to do in Krakow depending on how long you’ll be in town – read me now!
WHERE TO EAT
This travel guide to Krakow would NOT be complete without my take on the best restaurants in town.
I’m going to preface this section by saying I was only in Krakow for 5 days. There is NO WAY I can tell you the “best” places to eat because I haven’t been to them all.
It’s a pet peeve of mine when bloggers try to tell you “The best places to eat in _____” and fill in the blank with any city they’ve been to for a weekend. That’s a load of bull**** because they’re really only telling you the places they went.
What if all they had was mediocre food? They wouldn’t know because they didn’t try the restaurant down the street who actually has the best food in the city.
So, here’s what I’ll do. First, I’ll stop ranting. Second, I’ll tell you where I ate, what my thoughts were, and where I’d recommend you try.
This place is a gem! We stumbled upon it after visiting the Wawel Castle and Cathedral and we were starving! We started with some soup, a couple tapas, and a glass of wine. Then, I got mushroom pasta and Austin got duck pierogi and it was all delicious! Plus, the whole meal only cost us around $60 USD.
I LOVED this place and I had to recommend it in this Krakow travel guide. We were actually looking for a completely different restaurant, but I’m so happy we found this along the way.
Austin and I ended up sharing the Polish Platter. It had a little bit of everything – pierogi, beef roast, stuffed cabbage, bread and spread, homemade bread, and fried pork – AND all the food is sourced locally. We ended the night with some buckwheat cake and went back to our hotel with full hearts and bellies.
If you’re in Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) and need a pick-me-up, this coffee bar filled with plants is the perfect place for a stop. It’s probably not worth going too far out of your way for, but if you’re in the area, it’s a very warm and welcoming cafe that can make a great cappuccino!
Augusta Restauracja & Cocktail Bar
This is the river boat restaurant I mentioned above. I stopped in on my stroll through Kazimierz and admittedly, was a little underwhelmed. The food was decent, but the menu seemed to cater to tourists, so it might be a good place if you need a break from traditional Polish food. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of borscht and pierogi, so I probably won’t be going here again.
U Babci Maliny
This place is highly recommended! It’s technically a chain as there are 3 locations around Krakow, but the food is amazing and it’s super cheap and casual. You’ll order at the counter when you walk in, choose your table, and go up and get your food when they call your number. Austin and I shared a bowl of borscht and a plate of pierogi and we were both full off of a $12 meal!
This restaurant was very tasty! The only bad thing was that it took about an hour to get our food. I’m hoping this was just a fluke and the kitchen was having issues and if so, I’d recommend trying it. That said, if you’re from America and love a juicy steak, skip the steak here. It’s a bit different and more lean than you’re probably used to. What you should get is the soup flight! Poland has so many delicious soups and this gives you the chance to try 4 of them.
As you can probably tell from the language used, I started this Krakow travel guide while I was still in Krakow and I’m ending it on my couch in Chicago. I wanted to do this city justice by making sure I let all of you know exactly what to do, see, and where to eat to have an incredible trip.
Needless to say, Krakow quickly became one of my favorite cities I’ve been to (probably right behind Florence, Italy). The people are welcoming, the food is unbelievable, and I am a sucker for cobblestone and old architecture.
Once again, another piece of my heart has been left in Europe. Until next time,